‘Governments cannot govern with this lack of support’

Anthony Wilson-Smith January 7 1991


‘Governments cannot govern with this lack of support’

Anthony Wilson-Smith January 7 1991



‘Governments cannot govern with this lack of support’

Like his father, Patrick Nowlan grew up believing in the rightness of the Progressive Conservative party and the effectiveness of Canada’s House of Commons.

Following in the footsteps of his father, George, who was a Tory MP for 16 years, Nowlan was elected to the Commons from his Nova Scotia home riding of Annapolis Valley/ Hants in 1965, at 33. Since then, he has successfully held the riding through seven federal elections.

But in November, Nowlan made what he describes as “one of the toughest decisions of my life.” He resigned from the Tory caucus to sit as an Independent MP, citing his opposition to the government’s failed Meech Lake constitutional policy and several other areas of disagreement. And he told Maclean ’s that he is no longer certain whether Canadians of any political persuasion are properly served by Parliament. He said that the country desperately needs to make its politicians more directly accountable to the people who elect them. Declared Nowlan: “Politicians can lead the force for change—or be swallowed by it." byNowlan is one of a handful of political outcasts in the Commons—members who

have resigned from or been discarded by their party. Another is Edmonton MP David Kilgour, expelled from the Tory party by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney last April after repeatedly criticizing government policies. Said Kilgour: “I would have been failing my constituents if I did not reflect their anger at some of the things the government has done.” But while their status isolates both men from many of their former colleagues, their actions are compatible with the expectations of an overwhelmingly dissatisfied Canadian electorate. Eighty-nine per cent of respondents to the seventh annual Maclean’s/Decima poll said that politicians should make decisions based on their individual

consciences or on petitions sent to them from constituents, rather than simply supporting their parties’ positions. Said University of Toronto historian Michael Bliss: “More MPs ought to be like David Kilgour or Pat Nowlan. More may start doing this, if only to save their skins.”

But the antipathy of many Canadians towards the political process clearly goes far beyond unhappiness with parliamentary voting traditions (questions 7,8, 26,27, 28, and 32 to 35 in the poll text, page 32). Fifty-five per cent of poll respondents said that they should be able to recall their MP with a petition at any time. Said respondent Rona Kalijarvi: “These

people have to learn they just cannot keep ignoring us the way they do now.” Kalijarvi, 30, is a travel consultant and a married mother of a three-year-old son who lives in the Northern Ontario town of Lively. She told Maclean ’s in a follow-up interview, “Right now, I feel like no one gives a darn about ordinary people like me.”

Other striking signs of discontent: Only 11 per cent of respondents said that they favored the maintenance of the existing system of government. Another 60 per cent said that they wanted a more direct voice in decisionmaking. And more than a quarter—27 per cent—wanted much more: they said that they should have more opportunity to look after their own interests, without any government. Decima president Allan Gregg, who has been conducting political polls for 11 years, called those figures “stunning.” Added Gregg: “It says that something will have to give, that governments cannot govern with this kind of lack of public support, given the mood that we have today.”

In fact, the government appears to be responding to some of those concerns. Its strategy for a new round of constitutional negotia-

tions includes the Citizens’ Forum on Canada’s Future, which is soliciting the opinions of Canadians across the country. As well, Mulroney raised the possibility last month of a referendum on the national unity issue and he talked about shifting more powers to the provinces.

Senior government sources also told Maclean’s that they are discussing further measures to respond to that darkening public mood. For one thing, they are looking into ways to change existing traditions in the Commons to allow a greater number of “free” votes. Under the present system, there is too much at stake to allow governments to free backbenchers from the party line: if major legislation is defeated in the Commons, the ruling party is expected to resign. The only exception now is when all parties agree in advance to allow

individual members to vote according to their conscience. But one source said that the Tories may establish an all-party committee to discuss ways of changing those conventions.

Government sources said that the Tories would also like to have the Commons sit less frequently, which would allow MPs to spend more time in their ridings meeting with constituents. One option could be to have the Commons sit only three days a week, instead of the present five. At the same time, senior Tories are split on the issue of holding nationwide

plebiscites on major issues. Although there is widespread support among voters for the idea, senior Conservatives argue that such a plan would carry enormous potential for divisiveness between different regions and language and ethnic groups.

Still, the government clearly faces an uphill battle in winning back the confidence of the voters. Former Mulronery adviser Marcel Côté, partner in the Montreal-based consulting firm Secor Inc., says that Canadians are “simply turning their backs on politicians.” He added, “The levels of rage and frustration have never been higher.” Those emotions are reflected in the belief of many respondents that there are no real differences among the three traditional parties. Sixty-nine per cent said that despite their professions of having significantly

different policies, the Tories, Liberals and the NDP would “all govern pretty much the same.”

For most respondents, the current manner of governing is unsatisfactory. Sixty-one per cent said that government is less effective than it was five to 10 years ago, and 63 per cent said that they view politicians less favorably than they did then. That result, many analysts say, arises from a widespread feeling that present governments lack the will and the resources to help average citizens. “Everywhere you look, you see governments that are cutting services but increasing taxes,” said Thomas Courchene, an economist and the director of the school of policy studies at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont. “There is a sense that governments cost a lot of money, and only serve themselves.”

Indeed, in interviews with Maclean’s, respondents and analysts alike cited both moneyraising and cost-cutting decisions by the Tories as factors in the decline of faith in government. Among those most often mentioned: the Goods and Services Tax, the 1989 cutback in Via Rail services, and last month’s station closures and layoffs at the CBC—a decision that was announced after the poll was conducted in November but was in the headlines at the time of the follow-up interviews. Said Courchene: “The Liberals never gave a damn about the size of the deficit when they were in power, and that left the Conservatives in a terrible position. But the timing of some of their moves could not have been worse. They close up the CBC during a national unity crisis, and bring in the GST in the middle of a recession.”

At the same time, Canadians’ reluctance to rely on politicians may reflect a developing trend in many countries towards greater individualism. Côté said that polls conducted in the United States also show growing frustration with government and a desire to deal independently with problems. Said U of T’s Bliss: “It is related to people becoming more educated, wealthier and more determined to take control of their lives, and that means that they are saying goodbye to the nanny state.” Partly as a result, just a third of respondents said that they would turn to an elected politician for help in solving a problem affecting people in their community. The other two-thirds would prefer to rely on a group of neighbors (25 per cent), themselves (20 per cent), a volunteer organization (15 per cent) or a local business leader (seven per cent).

Regionally, those responses sometimes differed markedly. Residents of Quebec are much more likely than other Canadians to depend on either business leaders (13 per cent) or themselves (23 per cent), while in the Prairie provinces there is a higher tendency to depend on neighbors (29 per cent). Reliance on politicians is at its highest in Atlantic Canada (39 per cent) and Ontario (37 per cent).

There were also marked regional variations in levels of esteem for the politicians themselves. While overall, 63 per cent of respondents had a less favorable view than five to 10 years ago, Quebecers were the most generous in their assessment. Regionally, 51 per cent said that their opinion is now less favorable. while 15 per cent said that their opinion is more favorable (compared with 12 per cent nationally).

Still, the poll showed a strong sense in all parts of the country that politicians neither know nor care about the concerns of average Canadians. About half of the respondents agreed with the statement “No federal government elected is ever going to understand and respond to the needs of my region.” That figure was highest in Quebec (53 per cent), but otherwise remained fairly consistent across the country. Analysts said that reaction, coupled with the 55 per cent of Canadians who want to be able to recall politicians between elections, illustrates a profound degree of popular disillusionment.

Support for recall by petition is highest in the Prairie provinces (62 per cent), where it peaks in Alberta (67 per cent). To David Bercuson, a history professor at the University of Calgary, those numbers suggest a feeling of not being represented. “There was a time when we believed that ignoring the West was strictly a phenomenon of a Liberal government in Ottawa,” he said. “Now, Mulroney has shown it is something they all do.”

Those results are likely to be welcomed by the Alberta-based Reform Party of Canada and its leader, Preston Manning. Many of the poll respondents who participated in follow-up interviews told Maclean ’s that they are highly impressed by Manning, who supports public consultation and referendums as elements of government decision-making. The same group said that none of the leaders of the three current mainstream parties meets their needs. One respondent, 54-year-old toolmaker Nicholas Luik of Winnipeg, said that he used to support the federal Tories. But he added: “Mulroney is full of hot air and nothing else. [Liberal Leader Jean] Chrétien has turned out to be just another two-faced politician, and I am not impressed by that woman [NDP Leader

Audrey McLaughlin], But this Manning fellow, he seems to care about people.” In fact, many analysts say that the growth in support for regional parties like Reform and

the separatist Bloc Québécois, led by former federal cabinet minister Lucien Bouchard, is not a temporary aberration. Said Courchene from Queen’s University: “People are sick to death of the established system. That disgust

will not go away.” Seventy per cent of poll respondents said that now is not the time to begin new constitutional negotiations (page 18). But Courchene, who has been invited to appear as an expert witness before the Bélanger-Campeau commission on Quebec’s future, said that changes will have to be made soon to the Constitution. He added, “If Canadians want things to get better soon, the process has to start now.”

There are some indications that most Canadians care strongly about the future unity of the country. Asked if it was more important to have a leader who would look after national interests or one who would “look after your region’s interests even if it is not necessarily good for the rest of Canada,” 74 per cent of respondents chose a leader with national concerns (box, below). That figure was lowest in Quebec (61 per cent) and highest in Ontario (84 per cent). Said Gregg of the Ontario results: “Historically, Ontario people think that whatever is good for them is good for the country, and vice versa.”

The apparent ground swell of opinion favoring a bigger individual role in decision-making is producing changes at local levels. One Quebec Tory MP, Gabriel Fontaine of Lévis, says that he accepts the need for change wholeheartedly. He mailed 40,000 copies of a questionnaire on constitutional issues to his constituents in November. Fontaine said that the response he receives to the mailing will guide him on what stand to take on Quebec’s constitutional future within or outside of Canada. Said Fontaine: “This is something my people must decide.” On the other hand, eight residents of the rural Alberta riding of Wetaskiwin took their Tory MP, Wilton Littlechild, to court for not opposing the GST. Their suit accused him of “failing in his duty to adequately represent the majority’s views” by not opposing the GST. Early last month, Justice E. A. Marshall of the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench ruled in Littlechild’s favor, stating that MPs are not legally accountable to their constituents.


While an overwhelming majority of Canadians express frustration and impatience over the quality of their political representatives, there is no clear agreement on the kind of leadership that they actually want (question 37). Respondents to the Maclean ’s/Decima poll were divided over whether it is more important for a leader to be compassionate (50 per cent) or tough (44 per cent); to espouse modem values (57 per cent) or traditional ones (39 per cent); to be a conciliator, trying to reconcile different opinions (48 per cent), or an idealist promoting a clear vision (51 per cent). And while a substantial majority (63 per cent) said that they now think less of politicians than they did five years ago, a similar majority (68 per cent) said that they would

prefer an experienced politician to a novice. Said pollster Allan Gregg: “Charitably, you could say the people are confused. There is no consensus at all in terms of what kind of leader they are looking for.”

The lack of agreement extends to both the style and the substance of political leaders. Nationally, 49 per cent of respondents say that they want someone who is “sensitive to Quebec’s interests,” while 48 per cent prefer a leader who will “put Quebec in its place.” In fact, a significant minority of francophone Quebecers (27 per cent) said that they were looking for a leader who would be tough with the province. In the rest of Canada, 54 per cent favored the sterner approach to the province, while 43 per cent wanted a more sensitive attitude.

When respondents were asked how a leader should deal with English Canada’s interests, 63 per cent favored a “sensitive” approach, while 32 per cent said that English Canada should be “put in its place.” In that case, a significant minority of respondents from outside Quebec

(26 per cent) preferred a leader who would take a tough approach to English Canada. That attitude was much more popular in Quebec, where it had the support of 51 per cent of respondents.

In another apparent anomaly, the responses on leadership did not reflect the strong desire to reduce the power of the central government that emerges elsewhere in the poll. Fully 74 per cent said that they would rather have a leader look after the national interest than one who would care for their own region’s concerns, even if that was not necessarily good for their community. The national-interest sentiment had its lowest support in Quebec (61 per cent), and its highest in Ontario (84 per cent). While most Canadians appear to have decided that change is essential in the political system, they clearly have not fully thought through the leadership question.

A. W.-S.

At the policy-making level, a spate of new consultative panels suggests that governments are beginning to take demands for more public consultation seriously. The federal government’s Citizens’ Forum, headed by former journalist Keith Spicer, is seeking the views of people across Canada on the country’s future. That is in stark contrast to the failed Meech Lake process, in which Mulroney and the 10 premiers determined the proposed course of constitutional change in closed meetings. As well as Quebec’s Bélanger-Campeau commission, several other provinces have created or made plans for provincial commissions to canvass residents on their views on constitutional reform. Said Waldron Fox-Decent, a University of Manitoba political scientist who is chairman of that province’s commission: “We are all doing now what should have been done during the Meech Lake process.”

Still, as governments struggle to change their ways, many of them find that the process of adjusting to their new initiatives can itself be cumbersome and controversial. The federal commission’s Spicer quickly became embroiled in a controversy when he said his commission would limit its appearances in Quebec in order to avoid putting itself into conflict with the work of that province’s Bélanger-Campeau commission. Spicer later amended his remarks to say that the commission would go into Quebec, but he was still accused of vagueness. Mulroney himself drew sharp criticism for his decision not to defend federalism in front of the Quebec commission, which has heard mainly pro-sovereignty presentations. Officials in the Prime Minister’s Office defended his absence by saying that if Mulroney appeared in front of one provincial commission, he would be obliged to appear in front of all of them. Instead, a senior official told Maclean’s, Mulroney will make many public appearances in different parts of the country in coming months “so that he can speak directly to the people in a schedule of our choosing—not everyone else’s.”

At the same time, MPs who attempt to follow the wishes of their voters against their own party have found that they, too, can face other difficulties. MPs who oppose positions taken by their party say that colleagues often submit them to enormous pressure to keep their differences private. Said Kilgour: “Experts tell me we have the most rigid system of maintaining party discipline in the world. The fact of the matter is that many politicians in Eastern European countries and the Soviet Union now have more freedom to speak their minds than members of a Canadian parliamentary caucus.” Before the vote on the GST, party officials told Tory MPs that they would be expelled from the caucus if they voted against the legislation. Kilgour said that a number of other Tory MPs also opposed the legislation, but only he and Calgary MP Alex Kindy actually voted against it—and both were expelled. For his part, Nowlan says that he feels “liberated” since leaving the Tory caucus. He added, “It surely was never meant to be that you should surrender any claim to original thinking or the opinion of

your constituents as a price for belonging to a party caucus.”

In response, advocates of MPs’ responsibility to vote independently of their constituents’ wishes often cite British politician and philosopher Edmund Burke’s renowned Speech to the Electors of Bristol in 1774. In Burke’s famous declaration, “Your representative owes you not his industry only, but his judgment: and he betrays instead of serves you if he sacrifices it to your opinion.” But that is a view that many Canadians appear to be unwilling to accept. Said U of T’s Bliss: “Voters are saying, ‘No, we do not just want an accounting every four or

five years in which you lump in everything you have done and say take it or leave it. We want constant accountability.’ ” Winnipeg’s Luik was one of the majority of respondents who rejected the current system. Said Luik: “I have had it with politicians who pretend they care about what we think only at election time— and, in between, behave like we are in a dictatorship.” The message from the Maclean ’s/Decima poll seems clear: it is time for politicians to talk less, open up the process and listen more.